Background, lineage, history, whatever you want to call it, every car has one. In this case, Craig Mengarelli's Nova will be celebrating its 42nd birthday this year. A lot can happen in that span of time, way too much for one person to remember. Luckily for Mengarelli, he can account for the last 30 years of his Nova's life, about the same length of time it's been a prize possession rather than somebody's beater wheels.
At the ripe old age of 10, it was restored by Tom Cipra (Downers Grove, Illinois). Cipra brought it to a Chevy/Vettefest in Chicago for everyone's approval. He loved and cared for it until 1988, when he sold it to the president of Mengarelli's company. It had a 406 small-block under the hood with old-timey arched headers poking through the fenderwells, a hood riddled with 144 louvers, and matching polished aluminum inner panels built by Gary Heidt. It had 14-inch Rallye wheels, a Muncie four-gear, and 4.11 cogs. Originally a three-on-the-tree car, it still harbored a bench seat. Its most memorable exterior concession included Cadillac Briarwood Firemist paint.
In 1989, the company guy sold it to Al Shill (Franklin, Wisconsin). It sat in Shill's collection until he and Mengarelli struck a deal in 1994. Friend Rocky Palmi had told Mengarelli about the piece and showed him some pictures of it. Palmi had wanted to buy it from Shill, too, but couldn't find his particulars. Finally, he got the information he needed, but push came to shove (all friendly, of course) and Mengarelli wound up with the Nova. Good score. Shill hadn't put but 100 miles on the thing the whole time he'd had it.
Mengarelli: "It just sat covered up for all those years, so it was in great condition. But it was totally old school, from a time when gasoline was just pennies a gallon." In no way was it suitable for the open road, which is where Mengarelli wanted it to be. Those steep gears and tiny 235/60 skins would have to go. The motor was beyond tired. It guzzled oil like a lush, was highly disrespectful to a gallon of pump fuel, and was ultimately too big for Mengarelli's plans. It had to go, too.
Mengarelli envisioned one primary goal while he was rebuilding the Nova-reliability. No way did he see it as a dragstrip stooge or even a street race Rat. He wanted quiet and reliable. He wanted to take it cruising, and he wanted to drive the Hot Rod Power Tour without incident or anything else that would leave him by the roadside, and if he had to fix it, he wanted to be able to go to any Bow Tie dealer for parts. In the beginning, some crazies brought race motors on the tour and wound up working on them every night. Over the years, Power Tour participants have wised up considerably and found the value and efficacy of the turnkey crate motor. Plug it in. Turn it on. Sleep peacefully. Mengarelli got with pal Bob Pioch (BP Auto, Buffalo Grove, Illinois), and the two settled on a GM Performance Parts Ram Jet 350, circa 2000.
A paragon of reliability, the fuelie Ram Jet offers 9.4:1 compression, Vortec heads, roller camshaft, roller rocker arms, unsurpassed cold and hot starting, infinitely ideal air/fuel ratios, strong throttle response, bitchin' driveability, and a definite eye-candy factor. It's meant for 92 octane, but in a pinch, a tank of regular is completely acceptable. It makes 350 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, a good street-meat combo if there ever was one.
Concurrently, these two gathered up a two-row BeCool radiator core, a 100-amp alternator, and a March serpentine accessory drive. The subplot involved an infinitely better front suspension system, more room in the engine compartment, bigger brakes, and rack-and-pinion steering. All of this is basically bolted in place via a Chris Alston NoFab clip conversion that features coilover shock absorbers, Wilwood 13-inch discs, tubular control arms, and Jet- Hot-coated headers with 1 3/4-inch primary tubes and a 3-inch collector.
The drivetrain would be no less reliable. A Centerforce 11-inch clutch assembly enabled the Richmond Gear ROD, passing torque to a Quarter Master driveshaft, thence to a rebuilt GM 12-bolt replete with Posi-traction and long-legged 3.42:1 gears. With the 0.62 high gear in the six-speed Richmond, Mengarelli's Nova would roll easily down the interstate with a Bonneville-like 2.21:1 ratio. Engine revs down, mileage up. At 80, the engine would only be turning 2,200 rpm.
Pioch firmed up the Nova's underside and tied the front and rear tight with Alston's subframe connectors, then created the exhaust system using aluminized 2 1/4-inch pipe routed through an X-pipe and on to Flowmaster three-chamber "silencers." Voil! The boys were in business.
Support systems include a stock-capacity Rock Valley stainless steel tank fitted with an internal fuel pump. No sucking air. No pump cavitation. No running out of juice on a midnight back road because somebody installed the sump a tad higher than the tank's floor. The Rock Valley unit goes right where the original tank was, thus availing all the trunk space so necessary for taking half of your life with you on a long haul.
That the Nova's body was pristine was instrumental in reducing construction time and expense, so it only took two years to make the car what it is. Although we think louvers are cool, too many of them let way too much moisture gather where it shouldn't. Mengarelli carefully placed the Nova's punched-out hangover in the closest dumpster and attached a steel 2-inch-cowl Goodmark hood for form as well as function. Bill's Auto Body (Wheeling, Illinois) blocked out the body and shot the DuPont Aztec Bronze. After the paint cured, Bill's applied the fenderwell brightwork and the SS nomenclature and called it done.
We are subjective, possibly even prejudiced, in a firm belief that the classic five-spoke rim is the best bet for most cars, especially those flying out of the 1960s. It's simple, uncluttered, and very easy to clean. Let's say that American Racing more or less invented this popular form for drag race cars in the late 1950s. The design is timeless, and here they are now, though somewhat morphed. Dan DeRose (Berry Tire, Libertyville, Illinois) paired Torq-Thrust Classic II 17x6 and 17x7 rims with BFG g-Force 215/45ZR17 and 225/45ZR17 rubber and created the perfect complement to this Nova's perfect stance.
As a dedicated road burner, the Nova would have to be as cool, calm, and comfortable as possible-an inner sanctum for its occupants. To this end, Mengarelli trashed the original bench and dropped in some electrically operated chairs from a midsize Buick, with Bow Tie-emblazoned leather by A1 Interior's (Kenosha, Wisconsin) Dan Krause. They are decidedly plush and comfortable looking. So far, so good.
Head too hot? Let the A/C waft, bro, and when the conversation becomes stale and tedious, the Kenwood KDCX769 head/CD, Infinity front speakers, Kenwood 6x9 rear speakers, and Kicker 12-inch subwoofer can pump in a different perspective. That groundwork was laid by ABT Electronics (Glenview, Illinois). Along with the seats, Dan Krause massaged the rest of the interior and built the center console as well. Gotta have that armrest on a long bout behind the wheel.
Mengarelli lives by a bunch of Auto Meter gauges and tachometer, works a Long shifter jutting straight up by the console (what's that Line-Loc for?), and twirls that funky wooden Grant steering wheel. Now that he's been intimate with the Nova, what would he do over again? The Richmond drops the rpm 1,100 from Fifth to Sixth gear, but Mengarelli would seriously contemplate a five-speed with a deeper overdrive.
"One thing lead to another until I was satisfied that I'd accomplished my vision and the car looked and performed like I wanted it to," said Mengarelli. "I was building a Pro Touring car without realizing that's what it would be." Life's funny like that.